By David J. Schonfeld, MD
I am a father. I’m also a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who specializes in school crises and student grief. Both of my daughters are now young adults. But when they were teens, I faced the same dilemmas as parents now do in the face of a school shooting or other tragedy. What do our teens want to know? What am I supposed to say? How do I bring it up?
Here are a few tips that were helpful with how to talk to my child about school shootings. I hope they’ll be helpful with yours.
How to Talk to Children About School Shootings
1) Your teen wants to talk to you.
Teens want to discuss these troubling events with their parents or guardians. You are one of the most important resources in their life. Bring up the topic, even if they don’t mention it to you. Ask them what they’ve heard and what they’re thinking. If they seem resistant to talking, it’s generally not a good idea to force the conversation. Keep the door open for them to come back and discuss it later. Be available when they are ready to talk, but let them choose the time.
2) Teens want to know what happened.
It’s human nature to want to gather facts after a tragic event. Work with your teen to separate trustworthy sources from those that may be less reliable. Correct misinformation.
Remember that all of us need to monitor our exposure to disturbing news. Avoid graphic images and descriptions or repetitive coverage. Once you and your teen understand what has happened and know what you should do, take a break. Turn off the TV. Log off Facebook or Twitter. Instead, spend time together with family and friends.
3) Teens want reassurance.
We are all shaken by a mass shooting in a school or community. This is a painful reminder to teen and parent alike that we are never completely safe. It may remind teens about other losses or trauma in their past, or something they are concerned about in the future, even if unrelated to the shooting. The stories in the news may remind them of how sad they felt when a relative died a year ago. It may make them more worried that a friend who is ill may die.
Invite them to talk about their feelings. Ask them about their fears. Reassure them about the steps you, their school and the community are taking to keep them safe. But if they are still upset or worried, let them know that is understandable. Acknowledge the uncertainty these events can raise for you as well and share what you have done to cope with your own reactions. This is a good time to help teens learn how to cope with distress. It’s a skill they will need in the future.
4) Teens may want to find someone to blame.
Blaming can be a way for people to feel they’ve regained control of uncomfortable feelings or mastered a sense of personal vulnerability. That’s understandable. But staying focused on blame does not ease the immediate feelings of grief or fear. It doesn’t offer practical solutions for the future.
Help your teen separate anger from blame. Blame is not constructive. Anger, on the other hand, can be a powerful motivator to engage in meaningful efforts to better the world and prevent future shootings.
5) Teens may want to help others.
Some teens will want to help those who have been harmed. Some will want to get involved in working for a better world. Join with your teen to come up with a list of possible actions. Even if teens aren’t able to help those directly involved in the crisis event, finding ways that they can help others in their school or community can help them feel more in control and less helpless.
6) Just be there for them.
Offer extra opportunities for togetherness and reassurance in the aftermath of a tragic event—more hugs, watching a favorite family movie together, inviting friends over for dinner, taking a walk, playing basketball. These can all help teens reacquaint themselves with a life where they can experience safety and predictability.
For more resources and additional information, check with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. For more information on how to support grieving children and youth, visit www.grievingstudents.org.
David J. Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a professor in the practice of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Pediatrics at the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He is a member the American Academy of Pediatrics Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council, and has provided consultation and training on school crisis and pediatric bereavement in the aftermath of a number of school crisis events and disasters within the United States and abroad.